Monday, June 17, 2019

Mr. Billion

Mr. Billion; action comedy / road movie, USA, 1977; D: Jonathan Kaplan, S: Terence Hill, Valerie Perrine, Jackie Gleason, Slim Pickens, William Redfield, Chill Wills

A tycoon and CEO of a conglomerate dies when a building sign falls on him. His testament stipulates that his last family member, Guido Falcone, should inherit a billion $ and his company, but he has to show up in San Francisco in 20 days or the offer will expire. Falcone, an Italian auto mechanic, accepts, but decides to take a ship and train to San Francisco. Cutler, who wanted to take over the company by himself, hires con-artist Rosie to seduce Falcone and trick him into signing the power of attorney document, giving Cutler all the power. Falcone realizes he was seduced, but still decides to save Rosie captured in the Grand Canyon, even though that leaves him without time to reach San Francisco. Still, a company employee gives Falcone a jet, enabling him to reach San Francisco and collect the fortune with Rosie. 

Terence Hill remained an unforgettable movie star in his Italian homeland, thanks to his partner B. Spencer, yet did not manage to "break into" the American cinema "solo" with this light comedy that lacks highlights. Covering the often theme of a chase to inherit a fortune, "Mr. Billion" needed much better jokes to attract the interest of the audiences. Some of the best jokes arrive swiftly, such as when two henchmen are chasing the two protagonists, but in the rush they crash their car into a bus, which turns out to be a police bus, with dozens of police officers exiting to aim their gun at the crooks. In another, a big fight erupts in a bar, so a Sheriff wants to restore some order by using his pistol to shoot in the air, but accidentally hits the sign of the said bar, causing it to fall onto his own police car. It is indicative, though, that none of these above mentioned jokes involve the main hero, Hill, who rarely gets a chance to shine in the story and is underused. Hill has very good English language skills, though his accent is slightly "off" at times, yet he is given little scenes to talk. The film lacks ingenuity and creativity, and several jokes do not work: the opening act shows Falcone in a restaurant, enacting a shooting scene with a kid, so Falcone pretends to be dying, and ruins his shirt by placing a tomato on it, simulating blood, and then ruins even the dress of a woman and the clothes of the kid, whom he both hugs with his tomato-drenched shirt. The scene is pointless and should have been cut. Too many contrivances strain the story: Falcone and Rosie stop their truck after a chase, just next to a hired hitman who conveniently waited there in an ambush. What are the odds of them driving for hundreds of miles and stopping precisely there? "Mr. Billion" feels rushed and not well thought out, since there is not that many inspiration in here, yet still works as a solid fun.


Friday, June 14, 2019

Louise by the Shore

Louise en hiver; animated drama, France / Canada, 2016; D: Jean-François Laguionie, S: Dominique Frot

The end of summer on a beach resort in Normandy. Louise, a retired grandmother, watches how the tourists leave the city, leaving it completely empty. When the last train leaves, Louise stays alone in her home. Autumn and Winter follow, so she spends her days walking around the beach or remembering her childhood, such as the episode when she was a teenager and her lover fled from a place when he saw a dead parachuter hanging on a tree. Louise meets a dog who becomes her companion. She sinks in the sea, but the dog saves her from drowning. The summer returns, and the tourists return, too, with the train. Louise again returns to her previous state, commenting on the nuisance of the tourists.

A quiet 'one-character character study', this animated film is an ambitious, but boring, sluggish and uneventful art-film. Quite simply, watching a grandmother wondering through an empty beach resort during winter for 75 minutes—with such highlights as sweeping her doorstep from sand, stumbling upon a scrapheap or watching the horizon across the sea without using marine binoculars—is not that engaging. When there are several characters in a film, there are good chances that at least some of them are going to end up interesting or fun, but when you have a film like "Louise by the Shore" where its story follows only one character, and she is uninteresting and doddering, then the whole concept does not work. There are traces of some more philosophical themes by director Jean-Francois Laguionie, such as aging, transiency and loneliness, yet they were not developed that much since the ending has no point: there is no conclusion that leads to somewhere, it is just a circle where everything returns back to square one. Some rare moments work, including a one where Louise "talks" to her dog, humorously mentioning how people now call her retired generation ("'Best agers', or 'Generation gold'"). This would have worked as a short, but not as a feature film, and not even surreal dream sequences manage to ignite some greater sympathy for this fable.


Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Look Who's Talking

Look Who's Talking; comedy, USA, 1989; D: Amy Heckerling, S: Kirstie Alley, John Travolta, Bruce Willis (voice), Olympia Dukakis, George Segal

New York. Molly has an affair with Albert, a married man, and ends up pregnant. Since he refuses to leave his wife, Molly has to give birth and raise to her baby Mikey all alone. Her only support is James, a taxi driver who drove her to the hospital and remained her friend. Molly dates other men while James babysits Mikey. When Mikey gets lost and ends up in the traffic on the alley, James and Molly rescue him and become a couple. Molly gets pregnant again and gives birth to Julie.

There has probably rarely been such a cringeworthy and infamous intro to a movie during the entire 80s as in "Look Who's Talking" in which hundreds of sperms are racing to an ovum in tune to The Beach Boys' song "I Get Around", equipped with voice over of teenage cheers. Such is the beginning of Amy Heckerling's semi-autobiographical comedy about the women's biological clock and problems of single parenthood, which is honest and thus the movie has some traces of charm and humor—which are then ruined with lame caricatures and misguided ideas. The most pointless ideas revolve around Molly's fantasies: in the worst, she imagines that Albert tells her he will "explode" unless he kisses her, and then his head explodes (!), which is such an obvious revenge urge of the director who had a fling with a real life filmmaker to get pregnant, and now searches for a scapegoat. Another unnecessary idea was to have babies "speak" in voice over, thereby having Bruce Willis "dub" baby Mikey, but such wisecracking lines rarely get to somewhere more than Mikey commenting how he wants breakfast while watching the cleavage of a woman. A rare exception that proves otherwise is a scene in the park, where a baby girl is moving her lips as if she really is talking, which is sympathetic. This makes the movie moderately fun, since its concept is relevant. The two main actors are great, since Kirstie Alley and John Travolta have chemistry and treat the story with much more dignity and emotion than Heckerling herself did.


Monday, June 10, 2019

Design for Living

Design for Living; drama / comedy, USA, 1933; D: Ernst Lubitsch, S: Fredric March, Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn, Isabel Jewell

Paris. During a train ride, Americans Tom, a playwright, and George, a painter, meet quirky girl Gilda, who works in an advertising agency owned by Max. Tom and George fall in love with her, but neither is willing to give her up. Surprisingly, Gilda proposes to live with both of them in the apartment, and they agree. However, Gilda one day runs away with George. Tom achieves great success with a hit play, "Good Night, Bassington". He meets Gilda again, and this time she falls for him. When George returns, an argument ensues and she leaves them both. Later, Gilda marries Max. During a party, she is bored with her life. Tom and George return and she runs away with them.

Even though directed by classic director Ernst Lubitsch, with time it is apparent why this pre-Code drama-comedy forerunner to "Jules and Jim" did not achieve a status of a classic: "Design for Living" takes on a daring, surprisingly controversial topic of polyandry, yet its inspiration is never as sizzling or as tantalizing as its initial theme. For some other director, this is a good film, yet for someone of Lubitsch's calibre, it seems strangely pale, overstretched, melodramatic and tiresome at times. The opening gag evokes memories of Lubitsch's finest hours: Gilda enters a train and spots the two protagonists, George and Tom, sleeping and snoring, so she proceeds to draw them. Several moments seem remarkably untrammelled for today, such as the scene where Gilda persuades both men to live with them, in a threesome relationship, but says: "No sex!", as they all place their hands together to make an "gentlemen's agreement". Later, while she is alone with George, Gilda lays on a couch and just says: "We had an gentlemen's agreement. But I'm no gentleman!" In one scene, she even kisses Tom first, and then George a second later. Despite all of this, Lubitsch is overall restrained and elegantly measured, never falling into bad taste, while not dwelling or exploring this situation further. More of some great ideas would have been welcomed, since the abrupt ending leaves an incomplete impression.


Sunday, June 9, 2019

Bluebeard's Eight Wife

Bluebeard's Eight Wife; romantic comedy, USA, 1938; D: Ernst Lubitsch, S: Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, Edward Everett Horton, Elizabeth Patterson, David Niven

The French Riviera. Millionaire Michael Brandon meets the quirky Nicole in a store, where they buy the upper and lower part of a pajama, respectively. He falls in love with her, and tries to buy her affection by buying a useless bathtub of her father. Nicole accepts his engagement, but is shocked to find out he already had seven marriages. She accepts to marry him under condition that she gets 100,000$ in case of a divorce. After the wedding, Nicole is distant and avoids Brandon. She even feigns having an affair, until Brandon snaps, divorces her and lands in a mental asylum. Nicole's father, now wealthy, buys off the asylum and puts Brandon in a straight jacket, thus forcing him to listen to Nicole. She tells Brandon she only divorced him to have enough money to be his equal, and now that she returned, he knows she didn't do it for money. They thus kiss and embrace.

One of Ernst Lubitsch's lesser films, "Bluebeards Eight Wife" has funny moments, but they are built on a fundamentally misguided concept: that a woman shows her love towards a man by making him hate her. The screenplay, one of the early works by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, works the best in the 1st half, displaying their sense for wit, charm and humor: the opening sequence shows the protagonist Brandon arguing with a clerk in a store, because he insists on buying only the upper half of a pajama, since he sleeps without pants. One superior talks to the other, until the "half pajama" case reaches the manager—who exits his bed wearing a pajama without pants himself—and rejects the bid of "selling in parts" on the telephone, saying: "No, no, never. That is communism." When Nicole shows up and teams up with Brandon to buy the entire pajama and share it, because she only needs pants, anyway, the story elegantly teams up the future couple, already setting up how she will "wear the pants" in the household. The joke also pays off wonderfully later on, for the second time, when Brandon rejects a business offer of a Marquis, laying in bed, but then changes his mind when the Marquis stands up from bed, revealing he wears Nicole's pajama pants, and is her father.

Some details are also classic example of Lubitsch's elevated humor, such as the beach sequence, where Nicole tells to Albert how her proprietor demanded she pays an old bill when she was having a manicure, and then displays her fingers—with only two colored fingernails. Great dialogues give some delicious quotes: one is the entire sequence when Brandon starts naming all his ex-wives (Marjorie, Linda, Elsie...) in front of Nicole, who makes a petrified face, and then he adds: "Am I boring you?" This culminates in a hilarious gag ("Michael, in one word, how many times were you married?" - "Have you heard of Henry VIII?"). The first half is excellent, but the second half is a terrible disappointment that devalues the high impression. The biggest problem is that the audience is not given a reason as to why Nicole suddenly treats Brandon is such a demeaning way right from the start: is she doing it to force him to divorce her, to get his money? Or because she is just mean? Her explanation (and catharsis) comes only in the last three minutes before the end, but by that time it is too late for the viewers to emotionally engage in her character and ill-conceived strategy or forgive her nastiness. Maybe if Brandon treated her as a property he bought for a long time, it would have made sense for her "rebellion", yet this way, the direction of the story went a wrong way, treating her convoluted reasoning as something romantic, and not even references to "The Taming of the Shrew" manage to save it.


Monday, June 3, 2019

Predator 2

Predator 2; science-fiction action, USA, 1990; D: Stephen Hopkins, S: Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Rubén Blades, Kevin Peter Hall, María Conchita Alonso, Bill Paxton, Robert Davi

Los Angeles, '97. Members of two battling Hispanic-American gangs are suddenly mysteriously found massacred, hanging upside down, but there are no suspects. LAPD Officer Harrigan takes it personally when his partner is also killed. His investigation leads him to agent Keyes who reveals that the murderer is actually an alien, the Predator, who uses unknown technology to hunt people down and disguise himself with an invisible cloth. Keyes' men set up a trap in a warehouse, but the Predator escapes and kills them all. Harrigan then takes a gun and attacks the Predator personally. Harrigan follows the alien to its spaceship and kills it. Other Predators show up, but let Harrigan go, leaving in the spaceship.

While it took three films for the the "Alien" franchize to debase itself, already the first sequel of the "Predator" undermined the series, showing that sometimes certain stories can only sustain themselves in one film. While it has some fans, "Predator 2" is a chaotic rehash of the 1st film, just relocated from a jungle to an urban area, presenting a routine narrative that doesn't have much going for it, simply because it has no inspiration. The new main protagonist, Danny Glover, is one of the few competent ingredients in the film, delivering a reliable performance as police Detective Harrigan, yet little else is of interest here in the rushed storyline. The Predator's murders are banal, exploitative and vile, with several bizarre ideas (the alien holding a victim's skull with a spine (!) attached to it, boasting on the top of a building, while a lightning bolt strikes him from the sky) whereas one of the most misguided moments is when the Predator "speaks" the infamous line: "Shit happens!" There is also no reason for the movie to be set in the "future", in the (then) distant year '97, save for the throw-away moment where a forensic expert puts the Predator's weapon under computer analysis. "Predator 2" has two good sequences, though: the first one is the effective, genuinely suspenseful subway attack, where Detective Leona stops the train through an emergency break, and then proceeds to walk back to the last wagon, where the alien was seen. The second one is the finale, where agent Keyes set-up actually quite a clever trap for the antagonist, deducting the Predator can only see through an infrared heat-sensor, so he sends his men dressed up in temperature neutral suits, and sprays the warehouse with particles that confuse its sensors. More of such moments would have been welcomed. "Predator 2" is a solid, but underwhelming, disorganized sequel without a clear point.


Thursday, May 30, 2019

Mother Joan of the Angels

Matka Joanna od Aniołów; psychological drama, Poland, 1961; D: Jerzy Kawalerowicz, S: Mieczyslaw Voit, Lucyna Winnicka, Anna Ciepielewska, Maria Chwalibóg, Kazimierz Fabisiak 

17th century. Catholic priest Jozef Suryn is sent to a secluded covenant to investigate the alleged demonic possessions of some nuns. The local ex-priest, Garniec, fathered two kids and was accused of magic craft, and thus executed by burning. Jozef performs an exorcism on abbess nun Joan, which has only limited effect. Joan tries to seduce him. Jozef visits a Rabbi who questions his religion. Jozef then decides to save Joan by taking her demons on himself. He then takes an axe and kills two stablemen. Joan is cured while Margareth is abandoned by a squire, her ex-lover, and thus returns to be a nun.

One of Jerzy Kawalerowicz's more overrated films, "Mother Joan of Angels" is a peculiar film that is not quite sure what it wants to be in the end. It intends to be a horror, but its dry scenes are too static and too long to conjure up suspense. It also intends to be a psychological drama, which works better, but also lacks emotional investment. Just like many art-films, this one also falls into the trap of overlong, ponderous monologues by characters talking by the camera, which last for the entire film, instead of incorporating these philosophical topics into the story. One of the more interesting choices was to imply that the "possessions" in the covenant are just suppressed sexuality by the nun, just a subjective mental state, which works as a (vague) criticism of the Catholic church dogmas. Priest Jozef is a multi-layered character who is torn by his religion, and thus somewhat works in the story as a self-reflection or review of handling the unknown and hysteria with panic.


Monday, May 27, 2019

Pillow Talk

Pillow Talk; romantic comedy, USA, 1959; D: Michael Gordon, S: Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Tony Randall, Thelma Ritter

New York. Interior decorator Jan is annoyed that she still has to share her multiple apartment telephone line with a man from the same building, Brad, a Broadway composer and womanizer who spends hours of talking to dozens of his girlfriends. Jan presses the telephone company to separate her phone number, but there are thousands of applicants seeking the same. During a date, Brad overhears a guy mentioning Jan by her name. Since she never met him, Brad puts on a Texas accent and introduces himself as "Rex",  a tourist, and starts dating Jan. Brad is able to keep on the different identity, all until Jan's friend, Jonathan, exposes him. Jan is heartbroken and cuts off all ties with Brad. However, Brad apologizes, hires her to decorate his apartment and she falls in love with him again.

Every now and then, all the stars allign and somehow inspire an author to take a "frowned" upon sub-genre, change it, restructure it and make a representative film that surpasses its limitations. Screenwriters Stanley Shapiro, Maurice Richlin, Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene took the sub-genre of kitschy, sugary romantic comedies of Doris Day and somehow rearranged it into a small gem with this wonderful little film: it all could have went wrong, but somehow, accidentally, it all went the right way. A lot of kudos should be given to delicious, creative and irresistible lines which have so much wit and humor that they still sound fresh even today. For instance, in one sequence, Brad spots Jan in a restaurant and thus gives his date this exchange: "Shouldn't you be getting into your costume?" - "Well, there's not much to be getting into, honey-lamb". When Jan's date falls unconscious from too many drinks, Brad puts on a Texas accent, picks up the man, puts him over his shoulder like a puppet and says: "We have a saying in Texas: never drink anything stronger than yourself!" Another fine addition are the supporting characters: one is Brad's friend Jonathan (who complains that he is a part of a "minority group" who will "fight for their rights", the millionaires), and the other is maid Alma, who loves to drink and always shows up in a state of hangover every morning (going so far that she is even irritated by the "speed" of the elevator, complaining to the lift boy: "You shouldn't break the sound barrier!"). "Pillow Talk" takes a romantic comedy of mistaken identity of "The Shop Around the Corner" and changes it into a fine vehicle for all the stars in it, who all benefit from it, whereas it even uses some charmingly dated ideas (such as the iconic triple split screen of Jan "intercepting" a phone conversation between Brad and his girlfriend talking) to somehow work. Day has rarely been so precise in a performance, but Rock Hudson is the biggest surprise: his character Brad has a lot of sense for humor, and plays Jan like a fiddle, though he is never for a moment mean-spirited, which is refreshing.


Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Game of Thrones (Season 8)

Game of Thrones (Season 8); fantasy series, USA, 2019; D: David Nutter, Miguel Sapochnik, David Benioff, D. B. Weiss, S: Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Maisie Williams, Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey, Jacob Anderson, Sophie Turner, Liam Cunningham, Nathalie Emmanuel, Alfie Allen, Conleth Hill, Rory McCann, Iain Glen

In the North, the unlikely human coalition sticks together to fight the invasion of the Zombie "White Walkers" led by the Night King. The Zombies start the siege of the castle, killing numerous soldiers, and even use one of Daenerys' dragons, now also a Zombie, for the assault. However, just as the Night King approaches Bran, Arya assassinates the former with the Valyrian dagger, and thus the entire "White Walkers" army disintegrates. Daenerys then re-directs her army south to attack Queen Cersei. With her dragon, Daenerys burns and destroys the entire city of King's Landing, killing also every civilian in it. Disgusted by such insanity, Jon Snow kills Daenerys. In the aftermath, Tyrion suggests Bran as the new King, which is accepted by the six kingdoms, except the North, where Sansa declares independence. Jon is banished to live in the North.

The final season of the highly popular nihilistic fantasy series "Game of Thrones" ended not on a high note, but on a highly polarizing effect. The characters are all still here, but their personalities seem to have been lost somewhere in the previous season: congruently, it seems their random, contradictory actions and choices in the story are coming from some pre-designed plot points set up by the writers, and not from a natural unraveling of motivations of their personalities. The first two episodes are talkative and quiet, establishing a good mood of anticipation before the ferocious battle against the Zombie "White Walkers" in episode 8.3, which was done very well. This is then followed by episode 8.5, which is half-excellent, and half-detrimental. Its excellent half shows the battle for King's Landing with a lot of grandeur, style and 'raw' power, featuring epic scenes, which is all very cinematic (the dragon landing on Dubrovnik's landmarks; the Biblical fight between the Hound and Gregor on the stairs...). Its detrimental other half, however, is apparent. For one, Daenerys flies on a dragon to attack the port city, but she defeats the fleet defences way too easy. Considering that the fleet actually killed one of her dragons in the previous episode, 8.4, with a crossbow, one would have expected from her to concoct some sort of a strategy this time around—for instance, maybe to use her dragon to throw giant stones on the fleet from the sky, breaking holes in their ships and thus causing them to sink.

Another major controversy was the switch of her character: Daenerys orders the dragon to raze the entire city to the ground with its fire. Yes, sacking of cities was unfortunately common during the Middle ages, and urbicide and war crimes against civilians on a massive scale are perpetrated even in modern times, for instance in Grozny or Aleppo. However, you don't establish one character to be good for 71 episodes, only to make her suddenly evil in just one episode before the end of the show. It is an undeserved twist. The twist involving Ned Stark at the end of Season 1 was also unexpected and shocking, but consistent, since the Lannisters were established as selfish and treacherous right from the start. It seems Daenerys was arbitrarily made the villain just to be liquidated in the last episode, 8.6, which is the weakest episode of the entire series. This final episode is a joke. For a story that built up such a high impression (at times), such a low, bland, schematic ending is a disappointment. The ending has no point, whereas its resolution is not earned. It is an anticlimax. Jon Snow ending as some sort of a watcher of a ski resort in the North and Arya turning into Christopher Columbus could not please anybody. It simply offers no satisfaction to this vast storyline. Maybe the original author George R.R. Martin is himself guilty for piling up a hundred characters and so many subplots that they simply could not be tied up in a neat bow at the end, but they could have offered at least some explanations of the mystical, especially regarding the origin of the Night King, Quaithe, the Lord of Light, the Three-Eyed Raven... This way, Bran's whole existence in the story has no point, even though it was announced that his visions would be essential. It seems the story itself is surprised at how the characters switch and change from episode to episode, so much, in fact, that in the end this all doesn't fit.


Sunday, May 19, 2019

Ordinary People

Ordinary People; drama, USA, 1980; D: Robert Redford, S: Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Elizabeth McGovern, M. Emmet Walsh, Dinah Manoff

A seemingly normal suburban family is hiding a troubling guilt problem: Calvin and Beth, husband and wife, try to live on after their teenage son Buck drowned in a sailing accident during the storm, but his surviving brother, Conrad, is plagued by bad conscience because he couldn't save Buck, and hanged on to the boat instead of swimming to rescue him. In high school, Conrad quits the swimming team, but starts dating Jeannine and seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger. After Conrad finally speaks up about his guilt to Dr. Berger, and how his mother is cold towards him, Calvin and Beth separate on Christmas.

Roberd Redford's feature length debut film as a director is a competent, highly delicate and quiet little family drama, but, as its title already indicates, it is a tad too ordinary. During its premiere, it was heaped on with numerous awards and prizes, some of even for best film, and while some predicted that it would become a classic, with time this didn't happen: it is a good film, yet rarely goes beyond that—its extraordinary rarely surpasses the ordinary. The story about a teenager who has bad conscience because he survived a fatal boat accident, while his brother didn't, offers for a meditative psychological essay, yet not enough to truly carry or justify its running time of over 120 minutes. Some dramatic situations turned out melodramatic and overdone—for instance, in one sequence, Conrad announces how he quit the swimming team in front of his parents, and his mother, Beth, makes a huge drama out of it, as if it was some sort of a big deal. What for, though? Strangely enough, the movie seems to have missed the opportunity to use that plot point as Conrad's hydrophobia for some dark twist in the swimming pool, which never manifests.

Several other moments also seem somewhat awkward, such as the scene where Conrad gives a tragic description of his state, of how it feels like "falling into a hole", in front of Jeannine, only for this to be interrupted when some teenagers storm the diner and cheerfully parade around, causing Jeannine to laugh; or the moment where Beth and Calvin are going back and forth over who will make a photo for the album, only for Conrad to finally snap and shout: "Just give her the God-damn photo, already!" A little more finesse, ingenuity and creativity in dialogues would have been welcomed. If there is one thing that Redford knows how to do as a director, it is the way he manages to get the maximum from his cast, who all delivered emotional, strong performances. Timothy Hutton is brilliant as the teenage Conrad, suffering from anxiety, unable to move on from the emotional burden that was set on him, yet Donald Sutherland is also very underrated in his subtle performance as the father, who tries to understand and mend the problems in his family after the accident. One of the best sequences in "Ordinary People" is when Beth wakes up in the middle of the night and spots that her husband isn't in bed with her. She walks in the house and spots Calvin sitting in the living room, just crying, "in private". One of the most subtle details is that Beth actually loved the deceased child more than Conrad, which makes for a slow-burning mother-son conflict. The opening sequence featuring Canon in D major Composed by Johann Pachelbel in a choir is also an example of wonderful music. A good, honest depiction of inner problems that the past can leave.